"You are ill, Mr. Kennedy."
Archie blinked, full consciousness returning like a slap across the face. He stared at the stranger sitting across from him and blurted, "Who are you?"
"Permit me to introduce myself. Alcide Duclos, at your service."
The man inclined his head briefly, a bow so discreet that all but the most observant might have missed it altogether. His appearance likewise called no attention to itself. Of moderate build, wearing dark clothing that was well-cut but unostentatious, his dark hair pulled back in a neat queue, possessed of an unremarkable nose and eyes that in the subdued light of the tavern were gray but might in daylight reflect sea, sky, or ice-he was a man who might well pass unnoticed in a crowd. A broad-brimmed black hat lay on the table at his elbow. He steepled his fingers and regarded Archie over them.
Pinned to his seat by that penetrating gaze, Archie tried to order his jumbled thoughts. Only moments ago he had been sitting by himself, a largely untasted mug of ale in front of him. He had been daydreaming, certain sure. Who wouldn't, with a packet from the Admiralty burning a hole in his pocket? Among the dispatches no doubt would be fresh orders for the Indy, now in dock for refitting, as well as confirmation of Archie's commission as a full lieutenant. So when had this fellow-this Alcide Duclos-joined him? A Frenchman by his name and accent, though not necessarily by the looks of him. What was he doing in Portsmouth? And why was he sitting at Archie Kennedy's table as if he had been here all along? What was it he had said, that Archie looked ill?
That wasn't possible. Archie took quick mental stock of himself. He'd know if he had had a fit. For one thing, he wouldn't be sitting upright. He'd be flat on the floor or, if someone had taken pity on him, would be lying on one of the long benches near the inglenook or on a cot in some back room. He'd be drenched with sweat and trembling from exhaustion, his senses disordered, with a headache that always felt like he'd slept on the floor of a runaway coach. Archie felt tired now, but it was a different kind of tired. After picking up Captain Pellew's dispatches from the Admiralty this morning, he had visited the tailor to be measured for a new uniform, then spent a thoroughly unpleasant afternoon in the office of a Portsmouth surgeon who had eventually relieved him of an abscessed tooth, for which torture the mug of ale before him now was supposed to compensate. Except that it didn't, because he could barely force it to his lips. He grimaced now with remembered pain. Well, no wonder, Archie thought. That must be what the fellow sees.
"I appreciate your concern, Mr. Duclos, but I am not ill," Archie said evenly. "A simple tooth extraction, that's all."
The Frenchman's steepled fingers might have concealed a smile,
though when he lowered his hands to talk he presented a sober
countenance. "That is not all I see, Mr. Kennedy"
Archie interrupted. "How did you know my name?"
"The tavern keeper." Duclos made a dismissive gesture. Archie followed the path of the fluttering fingers as if they might reveal something Duclos wasn't saying. He tore his gaze away with difficulty.
"I never gave him my name, sir."
The Frenchman shrugged. "Nevertheless, he knew you. Perhaps you have been here before?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"Ah, well, it is of no consequence." Duclos's eyes sought Archie's and held them. "What is important, Mr. Kennedy, is that you are about to fall very seriously ill. In fact, you are going to die. Shall I tell you how I know?"
Archie shook his head, as much to dispel the lingering fog as to refute the man's ridiculous assertion. His silence did not deter his companion.
"You are troubled by the falling sickness, no? Yes, I see by your countenance that you are. In fact, I observed an episode just now when I sat down."
Archie felt his face flame. He opened his mouth to speak.
"It is no use trying to deny it, Mr. Kennedy. I know what I saw. The unfocused gaze was a dead giveaway. You did not see me take the chair across from you, did not respond when I spoke to you, did not even flinch when I felt your forehead for fever."
"But-but-I always fall-"
"You did not fall. Not this time. The illness has two manifestations, Mr. Kennedy. The one you usually experience, where you fall to the ground with incoherent cries and flailing limbs, and the trance-like state that I witnessed. I have not often observed both forms in one sufferer, however."
"Are you a doctor, Mr. Duclos?"
"Not formally. Though I have made extensive observations of illness in all its forms, I have not applied to any authority for recognition of my-qualifications."
So, the man was not a doctor. Yet he made free with his diagnosis despite knowing nothing whatsoever about the patient. Archie had not suffered a falling fit in well over a year now. As for the other type, the so-called trance, he could not say for sure. How could he positively confirm or deny something of which he was not aware? And even if he were subject to such a thing, he had never heard of a simple trance leading to anyone's death.
"Do not make light of your condition, Mr. Kennedy," Duclos spoke as if Archie had voiced his thoughts aloud. "A trance is not an asset in battle, I assure you. Or anyplace on board ship where a sudden swell can heave the very deck beneath your feet. Nor will you always serve under so understanding a captain as Sir Edward. Many a captain would have you flogged, perhaps turned out of the service as a malingerer or worse. And if your history aboard Justinian were to come to light, why, you might even be hanged."
"My-history?" Suddenly short of breath, it was all Archie could do to get the word out.
"His Majesty's Navy takes a dim view of sodomy, as you well know. Even if you were to admit that you participated only under duress, you would undoubtedly be tarred by the same brush as Mr. Simpson. You would be seen as tainted, as someone not safe to have around impressionable young midshipmen. That is why naval justice in such cases is summary and swift."
"How-do you-" Archie's mouth felt dry but he did not trust his hands to raise the mug of ale without spilling it. He swallowed painfully and tried again. "How do you know of Mr. Simpson?"
"I know his type, Mr. Kennedy. Men like Jack Simpson prey upon the innocent, the weak. In particular, a man of his type, when in the company almost exclusively of other men and boys, will single out the youngest or the prettiest among them to receive his attentions. When such attentions are not welcome, they can leave permanent scars upon the victim's soul."
"Mr. Duclos." Archie cleared his throat and gathered his courage. "I understand how you could arrive at some of your deductions from close observation. But you couldn't know other things unless someone had spoken to you of them. I think it is time you told me who that person is. Who gave you Jack Simpson's name?"
"No one has told me. I simply know."
"That is not possible."
"Why not? Because you do not believe it possible for knowledge to pass between two individuals without speech?"
Exasperation infused Archie's spirit, giving rise to anger. "Someone wrote it down, then, and gave it to you to read."
"I did not obtain the information from the written word."
"I read your soul."
Stunned, Kennedy sat still for several seconds. "That's preposterous," he said.
"Is it? I see much of your history in your eyes. I see it in the pulse that flutters in your throat and wrist. I see it in the trembling of your hands. I hear it in the pauses between the words you so carefully select, in the breaths you labor to take, and in the sheen of sweat that beads upon your brow. Names are inconsequential, but if you insist, I take them from your memories, from which they struggle to break free. They speak for themselves, Mr. Kennedy. Look for no other human agent but yourself. You betray yourself, sir; no one else speaks out against you."
Frightened now, Archie whispered, "You are the very devil himself, Mr. Duclos."
"You flatter me, Mr. Kennedy."
"I do not, sir."
"Are you not curious as to the manner of your impending death, Mr. Kennedy?" Duclos smiled.
"It can't be from my fits so I presume you mean to kill me."
The Frenchman spread his hands, palms outward, upon the table. "I am unarmed, sir. If I meant you any harm, why would I tell you beforehand?"
"To toy with me, perhaps. To enjoy my discomfiture. I don't know. Nothing you say or do here makes any sense." Archie rose unsteadily. His heart hammered so insistently he was sure the other man could hear it. "It is time I rejoined my ship."
"Go with my blessing, Mr. Kennedy. I assure you, I have only your interests at heart."
Archie threw some coins on the table to pay for the ale, picked up his hat and hurried toward the door. He felt a burning between his shoulder blades as if Duclos were watching his every step but he refused to look back. Damn! He should have gone straight back to the Indy after he had finished with the surgeon. What had made him think he could ever sit quietly in a tavern anywhere near the docks in any coastal town and have a drink, without someone turning up to parade Jack Simpson's evil deeds before him? Archie didn't believe for a minute the Frenchman's claim that no one had told him Jack's name. This whole episode had Jack's name written on it, even though Jack was dead and gone these several years. Dead and gone and still tormenting Archie from beyond the grave. Archie stepped up his pace as he reached the street. He never slowed until he reached the dock and hailed a shore boat to take him across to the Indefatigable.
"Ah, Mr. Kennedy. So kind of you to grace us with your presence at last. I presume, then, that you did not surrender my dispatches to the first brigand who accosted you?" Captain Sir Edward Pellew threw back his head to look down the length of his nose at the lieutenant standing at attention before him. It was his favorite pose when dealing with his younger officers, one guaranteed to discomfit even the most self-assured of them. Although, on second thought, using it on Kennedy was probably ill advised. If ever an officer needed bolstering of his confidence instead of taking down, it was this one.
"Yes, sir-I mean-no, sir," Kennedy stammered, a blush spreading across his fair face.
Pellew took the dispatches from Kennedy's outstretched hand and regarded the young man more closely. "That is an impressive bruise, sir. If I didn't know you better, I would say you had been brawling in the streets of Portsmouth."
Kennedy's blue eyes clouded with momentary confusion. "Bruise, sir? Oh!" His hand flew to his jaw. "You mean this." Self-consciously, he resumed his stiff pose, eyes straight ahead. "It was my tooth, sir. The surgeon pulled it out."
"And none too gently from the looks of it. Sit down, Mr. Kennedy. You look like you could use a drink."
"A brandy. For the pain."
"Thank you, sir." Kennedy lowered himself into a chair and accepted the small glass that Pellew poured for him.
"Don't drink it all at once. Hold the liquid in your mouth for a while until it numbs the pain. Later, tell cook I said you should have some ice. Wrap it in flannel and hold it to your jaw for as long as you can stand it. That should ease the swelling. I think you need not confer with Dr. Hepplewhite on the matter. Not unless you enjoy being bled."
The ghost of a smile quirked the corners of the young man's mouth. He looked as if he would offer a quip in reply but then apparently thought better of it and lowered his eyes to the glass in his hand.
Shaking his head, Sir Edward walked around his desk and sat down with the dispatches. Kennedy threw him a questioning glance.
"Wait there, please, Mr. Kennedy. I believe there is something in these papers that concerns you."
There was that look again, pain and panic in every line of his taut young body, as if someone had landed a hard punch to his gut. Really, the lieutenant was as highly-strung as an overbred horse.
"Tell me something, Mr. Kennedy. I have not so much as hinted that this might be bad news. For all you know it could be cause for rejoicing. Why do you immediately assume the worst?"
"Sir-I-I-" Kennedy's tortured gaze foundered. He whispered, "I don't know, sir."
"Poppycock!" Pellew bellowed, making the younger man flinch. "Sometimes I despair of you, Mr. Kennedy. Truly I do. You have absolutely no idea of your worth and even less faith in your abilities. You are a capable officer, yet you seem to have set yourself such a lofty ideal of perfection that you have convinced yourself you can never attain it."
"Do not answer, Mr. Kennedy. I offer this observation for your reflection only. Perhaps you will think on it when you are on watch tonight, hmm?" He rifled the papers in front of him. "Ah! Here it is. Read this, if you please."
Kennedy took the paper in trembling hands and read it without comprehension, if his lack of expression was any indication. Pellew took pity on him.
"It says that you are to transfer immediately to His Majesty's Ship Fortitude. Given the lateness of the hour, I think we may safely delay your departure until first thing tomorrow morning. That will give you time to say your good-byes."
"You have been re-assigned. I think you may look upon this as a promotion, sir."
"Indeed. You will be going aboard as a commissioned lieutenant, among men who have not known you as a midshipman or acting lieutenant. As far as they are concerned you have never been anything less than an officer. You have never faltered. Never feared. Never failed. That is a clear advantage to you, Mr. Kennedy. You will be a man without a past. You have only to show them what you are made of and I am sure you will live up to their expectations."
The look of betrayal in those wide blue eyes was almost more than Sir Edward could bear, yet he pressed on, somewhat more harshly than he had intended. "Please know that I am doing you a favor, Mr. Kennedy. I would not have recommended you to the Admiralty for promotion and transfer if I did not recognize that you have something to offer to His Britannic Majesty's Navy. Moreover, this will give you a chance to succeed on your own merits instead of always falling under Mr. Hornblower's estimable shadow. I know he is your friend and it will pain you to leave him. I know, too, that in some cases it is Mr. Hornblower who has inspired you to surpass yourself. But I also know that he will forever stand between you and any promotion aboard this ship. You should have equal opportunity to shine, Mr. Kennedy, but I am afraid that if you remain with us you will eventually become as intimidated by Mr. Hornblower as you are by me. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Kennedy?"
"Have you any questions?"
"I-that is-I-no, sir."
"That is all, Mr. Kennedy. Dismissed."
The young lieutenant rose carefully, like an old man trying to remember how to move. At the door he paused and looked back. "Captain Pellew, sir? I-I just wanted to thank you-for giving me this chance. I will endeavor to justify your faith in me." His soft voice breaking on the last word, he turned and fled.
Pellew stared at the door for several moments. Like the well-bred gentleman's son that he was, Kennedy had just thanked Sir Edward for breaking his heart. Well, it had to be done. However much the separation hurt, he had to learn to stand on his own two feet and not rely on Hornblower to support him. Pray God he wouldn't fall.
It took an hour of fruitless searching about the ship, with his quarry always having departed a place just as he arrived, before Hornblower finally caught up with Kennedy in his cabin. He found his friend kneeling on the floor beside his open sea chest, surrounded by its contents.
"Archie! If I didn't know better, I'd swear you've been avoiding me."
Archie didn't turn, and the significance of the open chest and the books and articles of clothing strewn around it slowly dawned on Horatio.
"My God, Archie, you're not leaving! Why? What's happened?"
"Not now, Horatio," Archie said in a voice thick with emotion. "I've had a very bad day."
"Here, give me that." Horatio took a crumpled shirt from Archie's trembling hands and smoothed and folded it for him. They were both silent for a minute, then Horatio said, "When must you go?"
"In the morning."
"H.M.S. Fortitude. There is something deeply ironic in that name, I'm sure."
"Fortitude. Isn't that Captain Wright's command?"
"Possibly. I don't know. I know nothing of her."
"Pellew didn't give you any details?"
"I didn't think to ask."
"He should have told you regardless. That's not like him."
"Perhaps he suspected I was in no fit state to remember a word of it if he did," Archie said bitterly.
"Archie, I'm so sorry."
"Don't be. As the captain put it, this is my chance to step out from under your shadow. What he really meant to say is that you'll be rid of the albatross around your neck."
"Archie, don't say such things! You know it isn't true."
"But it is, Horatio, and you know it. I've always been the weak link here. It's not fair that you should continue to carry me. Pellew sees great things for you. Naturally they don't include me."
"Stop it, Archie. You're starting to sound like you did in Spain." Horatio shuddered inwardly. This side of his friend always frightened him. When backed into a corner Archie didn't fight, he simply gave up. Part of Jack Simpson's legacy, no doubt. On a new ship, with no one who understood him, no one who cared enough to call him back from the edge, would Archie finally succumb to his demons the next time he teetered on some precipice? "Would it help if I talked to Captain Pellew?"
"Why, Horatio? Are you offering to fight my battles for me?"
"Archie, it's not like that." God help him, he was proposing exactly that.
The look Archie turned on him was both hurt and furious. "I'm not stupid, Horatio. And neither are you. Pellew recommended me to the Admiralty for transfer. And the Admiralty has responded by approving the transfer. There's nothing you or I or anyone can do. I'm a dead man," he whispered, and an odd expression came over his face.
Fearing a fit, Hornblower clasped his friend by the shoulders and peered at him closely; what he saw there was not the prelude to a fit but something else entirely. He gave Archie a good shake.
"Look at me, dammit! What are you talking about?"
Archie shrugged out of his grasp. "Nothing."
"You said you were a dead man," Horatio persisted. "What did you mean?"
"Forget about me, Mr. Hornblower," Archie said softly. "I no longer exist."
"Archie, if you're thinking of doing something rash-"
"I'm thinking nothing of the sort." Archie resumed deliberately folding and storing his belongings. A strange calm seemed to have settled over him. "I'll be gone, is all. And your life will go on without me."
"And your life, Archie? Will it go on, as well?"
But Archie did not answer him, and after some minutes of silence Horatio left him alone to his task.
It seemed fitting that it should be pouring rain when Archie Kennedy transferred from H.M.S. Indefatigable to H.M.S. Fortitude the next morning. Cold, wet and dismal, the weather suited his mood perfectly. On the plus side, it had kept farewells aboard Indefatigable blessedly brief. Not that her hardy seamen cared a whit about getting drenched. Working wet was a daily hazard at sea. Likewise, losing friends and shipmates was less common but not unknown. The sea exacted her toll from those who sought to tame her. War exacted a heavier toll still. Seen in that light, the separations brought about by career advancements were benign, though not necessarily easier to bear. He and Hornblower had said their farewells in private, so that Archie had time to compose himself before facing his captain and the rest of the crew. Even so, he had not been spared the indignity of tears, nor the painful lump in his throat that prevented him from expressing himself with his usual eloquence. Thank goodness for the driving rain that masked his mortification. And bless Captain Pellew, who had even managed to coax grins all around when he'd said, "Get you going, now, Mr. Kennedy. We cannot have you presenting yourself to Captain Wright all soaked and bedraggled."
Unfortunately, soaked and bedraggled was exactly how he would appear.
H.M.S. Fortitude was moored at the far end of the harbor. When at last the jollyboat neared her, Archie was surprised at how small she was in comparison to the Indy. More in line with Justinian, if memory served him. He would be a junior lieutenant on a smaller ship. And this was a promotion?
The officer of the watch turned him over to a midshipman who escorted him to Captain Wright's cabin. Neither of the officers saw fit to relieve him of his dripping hat and greatcoat. Seeing no chair or other object in the companionway where he might deposit his things, Archie folded the coat with the hat and the wet side in and draped it over his arm. He did his best to wring the excess water out of his hair, brushed himself off and knocked on the door. At the captain's, "Enter," Archie took his courage in hand and went in.
"Good God, man! What do you mean by storming in here trailing water behind you? Remove those things from my cabin at once, sir."
"Aye aye, sir." Archie retreated and did as he was told. There was nothing for it but to heap his wet things on the floor, while he wondered why neither the lieutenant on watch nor the midshipman had warned him that this would happen. They must have known the captain would be angry and yet they had done nothing to help Archie stave off the inevitable. It did not bode well for future relations among fellow officers. He re-entered the cabin.
"I did not give you leave to enter. Go back outside and knock. Can't you do anything properly, man?"
Archie backed out, closing the door softly behind him lest the captain accuse him of slamming it. Then he knocked and waited. And waited. He knocked again.
This time when he entered the cabin he stood at attention and reported for duty. Captain Wright rose from his desk chair and approached him from the side in ominous silence. Much as Archie would have liked to study the man to get some idea of him as a captain and as a man, protocol required that he keep his eyes forward and his bearing ramrod straight until allowed to stand at ease. The captain, it seemed, was going to insist upon strict formality. He stopped just inches from Archie's elbow.
"What is the meaning of this?" the captain hissed.
"This!" Captain Wright plucked at the white midshipman's patch on Kennedy's collar. "This-this-this!"
"Sir, I can explain-" Archie began.
"I was promised a lieutenant. A lieutenant, do you hear? And what do I see before me? A midshipman. A midshipman, sir! How dare you mock me? How dare you?"
"Sir, I am a lieutenant. My new uniforms aren't ready yet-"
"Not ready? NOT READY? How dare you report for duty in a state of unreadiness?"
"Sir, there was no time. I received my orders only late yesterday."
Beside him, Captain Wright snorted in derision. "Yes, indeed. The ink is barely dry on your commission and already Captain Sir Edward Pellew cannot wait to be rid of you. And I am expected to accept his leavings with gratitude."
Inasmuch as Archie quite agreed with this opinion, he kept his own counsel. The captain, meanwhile, circled around him, subjecting him to the kind of scrutiny that Lord Kennedy, Archie's father, might give a suspicious article of clothing being touted as the latest fashion by his tailor. Archie allowed himself a surreptitious glance as the man went by. What he saw shocked him. Captain Wright stood a good head shorter than Archie. And what he had taken at first to be a wig was instead a full head of snowy white hair. Yet the man was not old. No older than Pellew, certainly. There was a strange pinkness about his eyes. He stopped finally in front of Archie and glared at him, nose twitching, white-lashed eyes burning, looking like nothing so much as a large, malevolent rabbit.
"I despise pretty boys, Mr. Kennedy. Frivolous fops, less concerned with carrying out orders than in cutting a dashing figure while they do so. I shall be watching you closely, sir. Make no mistake about it."
Frivolous fop? Dashing figure? Pretty boy? Was the captain referring to him? Certainly he cared enough about his appearance to make sure his uniform was always clean and in order and his hair neatly tied, but he had never been one to preen and strut. Any physical assets he might value were more than counterbalanced by his shortcomings. What did Captain Wright see that he didn't? Especially in Archie's present sodden state, with wet tendrils of hair stuck to his face and slow, insidious drops of water snaking under his collar and trickling down between his shoulder blades, his soggy uniform plastered to his body, his damp shoes tightening on his feet, he felt anything but pretty. Blindsided, Archie could only continue to stare straight ahead and hope his bewilderment did not show in his face.
"So, you think the shoe does not fit, eh?" Captain Wright grinned evilly. "Granted, you look unprepossessing enough all wet and raw like an ordinary navvy, but you are finely-made, Mr. Kennedy, and I'll warrant once you show yourself abovedecks with those pretty blue eyes and that fair complexion you'll turn more than a few heads on this ship. I expect you know exactly what I'm talking about, don't you, boy?"
"Sir-I-I-" Was the spirit of Jack Simpson alive and well here, too? Archie felt the darkness pressing upon his outer vision, sparks of white light shooting shards of pain right through his brain. No, please God-not a fit-not here-not now-
"I thought as much. Well, young man, you will have to wait before you gratify your baser instincts at my expense. I was promised a lieutenant and a lieutenant I shall have. I want you off my ship immediately. You may cool your heels ashore for the time being. Put up in one of the dockside establishments in the interim and do not show your face again until you are fully and properly attired."
Wright turned his back upon Archie. Was it a dismissal? Which would be the greater offense in Wright's eyes-lingering after the man had finished with him, or leaving without permission? Considering how queasy he felt at the moment, Archie would probably hit the floor in a dead faint if he tried to move now. He stayed his ground. After a few paces the captain wheeled about.
"One more thing, Mr. Kennedy. If you are entertaining thoughts about returning to Indefatigable to wait this out, you can put them out of your mind. You belong to me, now, sir, and I expressly forbid it. Do you hear me? I forbid it."
"Aye aye, sir," Archie said softly.
"You have until Friday to present yourself in appropriate uniform. If your so-called tailor cannot deliver by then, I will know the reason why and I swear to you, sir, I will have you flogged first, and court-martialed after. Do you understand?"
No, thought Archie, swallowing the emotion that threatened to unman him. I do not understand. How your men must hate you, if you can only govern them by posturing and bullying. If you expect nothing but the worst of them, they will sink to your expectations as surely as Captain Pellew's men rise to his. I fear there is no reason nor justice on this ship. I am lost, for certain sure.
He swayed slightly, then said, "Aye aye, sir."
Horatio Hornblower was in no mood for merrymaking. Today his best friend-his only real friend-had departed for another ship, taking the first step on a career path that would increasingly diverge from his own. They had always known that this day would come; though which of them would be the first to go had been a matter for some speculation. Captain Pellew had warned them both on more than one occasion that friendships were hard to maintain in His Majesty's Navy, and for this very reason. Acknowledging the fact made the separation no easier.
And now Lieutenant Bracegirdle insisted upon dragging Horatio to one of the many taverns ashore. "You are as grumpy as an old bear today, Mr. Hornblower. You need taking out of yourself."
"Thank you, Mr. Bracegirdle. I appreciate your concern, but I assure you that I am quite comfortable with myself at the moment and do not need 'taking out', as you put it."
"Sorry, old chap. I know how you feel, believe me I do, but Captain Pellew suggested it, and you know how he feels about his suggestions."
Indeed. If Pellew had recommended the expedition, far be it from Hornblower to refuse. And so he trailed along beside Bracegirdle as they disembarked the jollyboat and made their way across the crowded dock toward the row of buildings that fronted it.
"We have several establishments to choose from, Mr. Hornblower. Which shall it be? The Ship's Bell? Everyone goes there. It can be over-boisterous at times. The Gull and Galleon is another loud and happy place. The Nine Tails? No, on second thought, I hear that one caters to a rough clientele. Not our sort at all."
"Somewhere quiet, please. I have no desire to shout to make myself heard." That was assuming Horatio felt like talking at all, which was no sure thing at the moment.
"Ah, perhaps you would feel more comfortable at the Topgallant. Although I must warn you, some find it quiet bordering on dull."
Horatio grinned in spite of himself. "The Topgallant it is, then. Lead the way, Mr. Bracegirdle."
Despite its name, the Topgallant plied its trade a short distance inland from the harbor's center of activity, which no doubt accounted for its staid demeanor and the fact that seamen seemed to be in the minority in the neighborhood. The face it presented to the street was plain but well-kept, its paint fresh, its door stout, its window clean and unadorned, its sign worn just enough by the elements to suggest that the business had enjoyed local custom for some time and had not sprung up overnight. At Hornblower's and Bracegirdle's approach the door opened to disgorge two well-dressed, bewigged persons who showed none of the ill effects often associated with a tavern visit. From the low level of conversation behind them the place might have been a gentlemen's club in London and not a tavern at all.
"They rent rooms, upstairs," Bracegirdle mentioned as they waited for a clear path to the door. "All on the up-and-up, of course. You don't find many doxies hanging about these parts."
"You seem to know a lot about it, Mr. Bracegirdle," Horatio teased.
"Oh, not from personal experience, Mr. Hornblower. It's only that someone in my position hears all manner of things, you see."
They entered, gave their order to the barman and cast about for a place to sit. Horatio had started toward an empty table near the front of the room when Lieutenant Bracegirdle put a hand on his elbow.
"I say, isn't that Mr. Kennedy?"
Horatio followed his gaze to the rear corner where a solitary figure sat apparently lost in thought. Horatio knew that posture and the troubled set of mind it presaged. He set off in his friend's direction.
Kennedy looked up at the sound of his voice, but slowly, as if his reflexes were dulled by drink or pain. Knowing his friend as well as he did, Horatio discounted the former, especially as a full tankard sat on the table before him. Archie habitually ordered only one drink, preferring to nurse it all evening as a guarantee that, whatever else happened, he would keep his wits about him. Pain, then, but whether physical or emotional Hornblower could not immediately discern.
"Horatio," Archie acknowledged, his voice little more than a whisper.
Bracegirdle came abreast of Hornblower and boomed, "Mr. Kennedy, sir. Well met! How is it that you are not aboard your ship? H.M.S. Fortitude, I believe it is?"
Archie winced. For a moment Horatio saw in his eyes the same panic he had displayed at Muzillac under French sniper fire. It was extinguished as quickly as it had flared, to be replaced by a look that could only be described as a dull but persistent ache.
"I am not welcome aboard ship," Archie stated quietly, looking at neither of them.
Hornblower and Bracegirdle pulled chairs up to the small wooden table and sat down, regarding Kennedy with concern. They were prevented from immediate speech by the appearance of the barman with their tankards. When he had gone, Horatio said, "What do you mean, Archie? What happened?"
"I was not properly dressed."
"Captain Wright expected a leftenant. I reported for duty in my midshipman's uniform."
"But you explained it to him, of course," Bracegirdle said confidently. "Surely he understood the circumstances? One must make allowances for fine tailors, especially those that cater exclusively to the Navy."
"He chose to take it as a personal affront. I am banished-in disgrace-until Friday, when I shall either appear in the correct uniform or suffer the consequences."
"Consequences?" Bracegirdle and Hornblower echoed simultaneously.
Archie's voice was toneless. He might have been reading a laundry list. "Flogging. Followed by court-martial."
Bracegirdle, abandoning his customary jovial manner, said, "Such brutality seems out of proportion to the offense, Mr. Kennedy. Are you sure he was not making sport of you?"
"If so, 't was a poor joke," Horatio interposed. "He actually threatened you?"
"The captain's every reaction was stronger than warranted. And yes, Mr. Hornblower, the threat was real. I have no doubt that he would carry it out."
"How do his other officers read him? Did you have a chance to speak with any of them?"
"They led me as a lamb to slaughter, Horatio. I expect I shall provide them with further opportunity for sport before I am finished."
Horatio heard the despair in Archie's voice, saw it in his friend's clouded visage. This should not have happened, not to Archie, not after all he had been through in his sometimes-turbulent years of service. He absently massaged his left wrist but otherwise sat so very still he might have been fashioned from wax. He looked ill. Horatio longed to ask him if his fits had returned but did not wish to expose him to Bracegirdle's well-meaning but insatiable curiosity.
"Archie," he said. "Come back to the Indy with us. Your berth is still open; I'm sure Captain Pellew would be happy to let you stay aboard until this is resolved."
"Thank you, Horatio, but I cannot. Captain Wright anticipated the possibility and forbade it."
"How is he to know?"
"He is the sort of man who would make it his business to find out."
"You make him sound an ogre, Mr. Kennedy," Bracegirdle said.
"No, not at all," Archie replied, his voice grown so soft and strained that they had to lean closer to hear him. "He is no troll under the bridge in a children's story. He is the fire-breathing dragon at the center of the earth-and I am a poor knight whose armor has so many chinks it provides no protection at all from the flames."
Horatio led the conversation away from the fanciful tack it had taken. "Where are you staying, Archie?" He felt a pressing need to know. Experience told him his friend would need looking after in these next few days, because in his present state of mind he was as much a danger to himself as any outward forces were toward him.
"I've taken a room here."
"A good choice," Bracegirdle nodded. "I understand the place is clean and quiet."
"Archie, promise me you'll stay put. Don't go wandering about Portsmouth. You're in no condition-"
"I have to stop at the tailor's, Horatio."
"By all means, stop at the tailor's. But nowhere else. You're ill-"
"You're the second person who's told me that."
Surprised, Horatio said, "Who else?"
"A man-in a tavern-" Archie said vaguely. He seemed to be having trouble concentrating.
"Who was he?"
"Does it matter, Mr. Hornblower?" Bracegirdle asked.
Horatio shrugged. "It's curious, that's all. Mr. Kennedy knows few people apart from Navy personnel."
"Not-a Navy-man." Archie struggled with the words; his eyelids drooped. Lunging quickly, Horatio just managed to break his fall as he started to slide off the chair.
"Damn!" Horatio got to his feet and placed an arm firmly around Archie's shoulders. "Support him from the other side, Mr. Bracegirdle. I think it's time Mr. Kennedy retired for the night."
Bracegirdle, lending aid as requested, observed, "It's not the drink. It looks like he hasn't touched it. Do you think he really is ill?"
"I've no doubt about it."
The barman directed them to the landlord, with whose help they got Archie up to his room and into bed.
"I feel badly, letting him think Mr. Kennedy is the worse for drink," Bracegirdle said after the landlord had returned to his other customers. "Was that wise, do you think? He may treat Mr. Kennedy with less courtesy tomorrow because of it."
"I'd feel worse if we admitted Archie is ill." Horatio untied Archie's queue and smoothed the dark blond hair so that Archie would not awaken with a painful knot at the base of his neck. "He might not want him here at all, in that case."
"And what if Mr. Kennedy's condition worsens in the night? What if he requires a doctor and no one knows to help him? You cannot stay the night, you know, Mr. Hornblower, no matter how much you desire it. You have the watch in two hours."
"I am aware of that, Mr. Bracegirdle."
"And something else you may want to consider, if you haven't already-we cannot lock the door upon leaving, because we would be locking Mr. Kennedy in. He cannot get up and lock the door himself. We shall have to leave him alone in an unlocked room in a public house, unconscious and unable to defend himself should the need arise."
Horatio looked at him in alarm. "You said yourself this was a safe establishment."
"I said it was clean and quiet, Mr. Hornblower. Footpads and cutpurses might not be able to come in from the street, but who is to say one of the other guests does not suffer from light fingers and a predisposition to wander in the night? I know that Mr. Kennedy does not have any valuables upon him as such, but his sea chest does contain a sword and a brace of pistols, and therefore is as vulnerable as he is."
"Damn!" Horatio muttered. "I hadn't thought of that."
"We must inform the landlord, Mr. Hornblower. Mr. Kennedy's life may depend upon it."
From his position in the dark crook of the stairway, the man who called himself Alcide Duclos watched the two Naval officers come down the stairs and make their way to the bar. His keen hearing, trained upon the upstairs room, had told him all he needed to know. He waited until they had exited the tavern before making his own way forward to book a room.
The landlord apologized that his best room was already bespoke.
"Ah, yes. By the young naval officer who was taken ill," Duclos said.
"You know about that?"
"I was in the public room when they carried him upstairs."
"Humph. They tried to make me believe it was the drink, at first. Then they come down a few minutes later and say, no, they were mistaken. Damned if I know what to think."
"Oh, he's ill. You can rest assured of that."
"You wouldn't be a doctor, would you, Mr. Dooclose?" The landlord looked at him hopefully. Alcide, ignoring with difficulty the mispronunciation of his name, stopped in the stairway to sketch a formal bow but said nothing in response. The landlord resumed, "Only as that would be right handy, that would. On account of how he might need a doctor tonight or tomorrow. Here we are, sir. I have the two rooms left, the one in front-it's on the street, so it can be a bit lively at times-and the one next door to the officer's."
Do not appear too eager, Alcide reminded himself. "I will look at them both, if I may."
The landlord opened the door of the front room. It was across from Kennedy's room, so that an open door would permit Duclos to keep an eye on comings and goings there. It would do in a pinch, but a room directly next door to Kennedy's would be preferable. To satisfy the landlord he walked around the small chamber, looked out the window, inspected the bedding, then asked to see the other room.
The second room was smaller. Duclos subjected it to the same examination as the first, noting that its window opened onto a narrow alley and that the bed shared the same inside wall as the bed in Kennedy's room. This he knew without seeing that room, for his finely honed senses detected the sleeper on the other side of the wall, so tantalizingly close that he could all but feel the other's blood pumping through his veins.
"This one, I think," he told the landlord. "It will, as you say, be quieter. And I will be more likely to hear the young officer if he calls for help."
The landlord appeared to think this over, then he brightened. "If it wouldn't seem too for'ard, sir, do you think you could take a look at him now? His friends'll be back in the morning, but I'd rest easier knowing a doctor'd seen to him tonight."
"In that case, sir, I would not mind at all."
If the landlord noticed that Duclos carried no doctor's bag nor, in fact, any other bag of any description whatsoever, he said nothing. Duclos could have laughed aloud at how easily his goal was accomplished. The vacant room next door. His object's door conveniently unlocked. The shared wall between their beds. He could spend the night in either room with no one the wiser.
"It will take me a few minutes to make my examination," he told the landlord. "Out of respect for the young gentleman's privacy, perhaps you would be so good as to return to your customers?"
The landlord bobbed hastily, backed out and went downstairs. Duclos closed and locked the door behind him.
"Now, Mr. Kennedy, let's have a proper look at you," he said to the sleeping form. He turned down the blanket to Kennedy's waist and rolled back the shirt cuff from his left wrist. Only a faint line remained of Duclos's intrusion yesterday, a scar so small that mere human eyes would detect nothing amiss. A slight redness showed where the young man, perceiving the healing as an itch, had scratched it. Alcide reached into his pocket and brought out a hollow gold fingertip, its nail sharpened to a lethal point. Slipping this over his right thumb he traced a fine line across Kennedy's wrist-the fair, translucent skin showing him the precise position of the blue vein. The ruby blood beaded to the surface, slowly at first, then more freely as the injured flesh parted to admit the flow. Alcide pocketed the fingertip and raised the unresisting wrist to his lips.
Kennedy began to whimper. He tossed his head restlessly on the pillow but did not awaken. Duclos drank deeply. Along with the blood came Kennedy's memories-an intoxicating mixture of torments both physical and emotional. At their core, inextricably bound with layer upon layer of nightmare, the violent destruction of a boy's innocence colored all the rest, giving rise to complex fears, suppressed rage and exquisite despair. These emotions were more distinct than the impressions he had gleaned yesterday, when in the dim light of another tavern he had begun the transformation. He had chosen well when he had marked the handsome young officer as someone to whom life had become a burden. Duclos might have drained him then and there, had not something in the rich tapestry of painful memories attracted him. More than the facts of illness and abuse, which Duclos had seen without much probing, there had arisen from Kennedy's unconscious mind the names and images of his tormentors. If Kennedy could be convinced to seek revenge for the wrongs done him in life, he would be a powerful force in the life after death that Duclos could give him.
He continued to drink until he felt the young man's heartbeat grow weak and erratic. Reluctantly he drew back. To take any more from him tonight would kill him, and that was not Duclos's intention. Replacing the golden fingertip on his thumb, he opened his own wrist and pressed it to Kennedy's mouth.
"Drink, Mr. Kennedy. Drink deeply. I have drawn much of the poison from you. Now you must regain your strength. My blood will sustain you through the transformation to come. It will happen soon, so you must make ready. Tomorrow your friends from the Indefatigable will be back to see you. Make sure, Mr. Kennedy, that they understand and will carry out your wish to be buried on land and not at sea. It is imperative that you-and they-carry out my instructions to the letter, for if they consign your body to the deep I shall not be able to resurrect you and you will be lost."
Duclos did not need an answer to know that Kennedy heard and understood. So greatly did the young man dread being cast adrift that thrown a lifeline-any lifeline-he would grasp it fervently and never let go.
He sat by Kennedy's side until morning, when the landlord knocked to inquire if the young officer would take some beef tea. Alcide smiled to himself. The transformation was progressing toward its inexorable outcome. Beef tea, administered now, would have a predictable result. Still, it would be good for the landlord to witness it. He opened the door and let the man in.
"Good morning, Dr. Dooclose, sir. How is the patient this morning?" The landlord carried a small tray containing a bowl of steaming liquid whose stench would have turned Duclos's stomach had he still possessed one.
"Not well, I'm afraid. He passed a difficult night."
"Looks pale as the moon, don't he?" the landlord agreed. "Do you think he'll take this?"
"We can but try."
"Would you do the honors, sir?"
"It will take our combined efforts, I think," Duclos said. "One of us to raise him and one to hold the bowl and feed him."
The landlord looked at Kennedy's frail form with an expression of mistrust, then made his choice. "You hold him, then, gov' and I'll spoon the broth into him."
As Duclos expected, the beef broth produced a violent reaction. Kennedy heaved up not only the few spoonfuls of broth that had slid down his throat but also the remaining contents of his stomach. The landlord removed the tray and it contents and, grumbling, went off to fetch clean bedding.
When Hornblower arrived some time later, his friend lay quietly between fresh sheets, wearing a clean shirt, his face washed and hair combed. Horatio noted these attentions as a mark of the excellent care the landlord was providing, without questioning why they had been necessary. His first and only concern was for how Archie was faring. What he saw as he drew nearer alarmed him.
Archie's normally fair skin, which could flare with color at any rush of emotion, today was scarcely distinguishable from the linens against which he lay. The dark smudges under his eyes and the bruise left by the surgeon's manhandling suggested discoloration rather than a color of their own, while his lips were tinged a similarly unhealthy hue. The hollows of his eye sockets and cheeks accentuated the sharpness of his bones, lending an austere maturity to his youthful countenance.
Someone had positioned a chair close to the bed and Horatio sat in it. He put a tentative hand on his friend's arm.
When Archie did not respond Horatio leaned closer and touched his face. So cold. He was breathing, but just barely. Horatio tenderly brushed a wisp of hair from Archie's brow. Archie opened his eyes and looked back at him. It was the gaze of a man who, having withstood a lifetime of adversity, faces but one final challenge.
Horatio forced a smile. "How are you, Archie? Did you sleep well?" Lord, he sounded like an ass. Of course Archie hadn't slept well. No one could sleep well and still look like that the next morning.
Archie's fingers found his and clasped them desperately but without strength. "Horatio," he said weakly. "You must-do-something for me."
"Anything, Archie. You can ask me anything. You know that."
"Don't-let them-bury me at sea."
"Archie," he admonished. He was about to add, "Don't say such a thing," but realizing that it had to be said, now while there was still time, he held his tongue.
"Let me finish, 'ratio. I'm dying. There's no use-pretending-otherwise." Archie paused for a few seconds, perhaps ordering his thoughts, perhaps merely trying to catch his breath. "There's a cave," he resumed, "up the coast a few miles. It sets back-far enough-the water never reaches-all the way." Another long pause. Archie closed his eyes. He tried to swallow.
"Do you want a sip of water, Archie?"
"No-won't help," Archie whispered. "The cave, 'ratio. Lay me there-where I can hear-and smell the sea. Promise-"
Horatio swallowed the lump in his throat. "I promise."
"Bury me-in my-new uniform."
Oh, God, that wretched uniform! Why would he want it now?
"Promise me, 'ratio."
"Yes, Archie. I promise. Your new uniform. Anything else?"
"Only-do you think-" Archie appeared to drift again. With visible effort he brought himself back. "Captain Pellew-"
"What about Captain Pellew? Archie?"
"Will he-read the service-over me?"
This time there was no keeping the tears in. Horatio felt them roll down his cheeks despite his best efforts to school his expression. "I'm sure he'll be honored, Archie."
"Thank him for me-in case-I cannot."
But Archie's eyes had closed and his breathing, though ragged, suggested sleep. Horatio gently stroked his cheek, then rose from the chair and went out of the room. In the hallway he saw a man dressed all in black, his face pale in the subdued light. Something in the quality of his waiting conveyed his desire to speak. Horatio suddenly understood.
"Are you the doctor?"
"Alcide Duclos." The man bowed. "I have been privileged to attend Mr. Kennedy. You must be his friend. Horatio Hornblower, is it not? He spoke of you."
"Dr. Duclos, can you tell me what is wrong with him? He was in good health two days ago. Now there is such a change in him that I am at a loss to fathom what might have caused it."
"Come downstairs, Mr. Hornblower. We will discuss it over a cup of coffee, yes?"
Horatio accompanied the man to the public room, all but deserted at this hour of the day. Duclos ordered two coffees and led Horatio to a table out of reach of the bright morning sunlight.
"You must forgive me, Mr. Hornblower. I sat up all night with Mr. Kennedy. I find the daylight somewhat-overpowering."
"Of course, Mr. Duclos. And you in turn must forgive me for not thanking you properly. When you entered the tavern I'm sure you did not expect to pass the night engaged in a professional capacity. It was very good of you to take on Mr. Kennedy's care."
"I was happy to be able to help. Although it appears my efforts will not produce the outcome you would wish. For that you have my apologies, Mr. Hornblower."
The landlord placed a pot of coffee between them and poured two cups. Duclos took one and set it in front of him but did not drink.
"Dr. Duclos, my father is also a doctor. I have seen people come to him for all manner of ills both real and imagined. Never have I seen or heard of someone wasting away so entirely as Mr. Kennedy seems to have done over the course of two days. What is it? Do you know?"
"Insofar as I can determine, Mr. Hornblower, it is simply that his heart has given out."
"But-but, he is a young man!" Horatio protested.
"Youth or age has nothing to do with it. I am surprised you do not know this, being a doctor's son. I know there are many physicians who believe in vapors as the cause of illness. I do not. The heart is an organ like any other. If it is imperfect-"
"There is nothing imperfect about Mr. Kennedy's heart," Horatio said hotly. "He was well and strong two days ago and now he lies near death. I do not believe sudden illness brought about such a dramatic change. There is no mortal injury. I have wracked my memory and the only possible cause that presents itself to my mind is poison, either accidentally ingested or administered by his own or someone else's hand."
Duclos's face showed more interest than surprise. "By his own hand? Has Mr. Kennedy tried to take his own life on some other occasion?"
"Only once that I am aware of." Horatio remembered that incident now with some shame. "He tried to starve himself to death. We were in prison at the time. In Spain. I should have seen what he was doing and stopped him sooner. He nearly died."
"I see. And you think he might have tried to take his life this time, also?"
"It is possible. He was very unhappy about having to transfer to another ship. His new captain impressed him as something of a martinet." Horatio let his thoughts run ahead while he drank his coffee. Suicide seemed such a cowardly way out of an untenable situation, and yet, who was he to judge? Had he not contemplated such an escape himself after Jack Simpson beat him on Justinian? Archie had amassed far more cause for despair in his young life than Horatio ever had. Still, would he throw away all that he had achieved? His hard-won lieutenant's commission? The respect of the men aboard Indefatigable? His friendship with Horatio? It seemed self-serving to suggest such a thing, but it was true. Over the years their mutual friendship had worked to both their advantages. They complemented one another, supported one another, believed in one another. Or did most of the time, anyway. Would Archie throw all that away over an unwelcome transfer?
"It is possible but not probable. Is that what your scowl of deep concentration is saying?" Duclos said with a smile.
"Exactly so." And yet-without Horatio to talk him out of it, could Archie have given in finally to the ultimate act of despair? But where would Archie have laid hands on poison? How would he have known how much to take? Why-and this was the most galling and the most unanswerable of all-why hadn't he come to Horatio for help with his problems before taking it? "Doctor," he said, "can you tell from his symptoms what sort of poison he might have taken?"
"It is difficult to say. But I am glad you brought up the subject. It explains for me something that took place this morning. Perhaps my brain was too fogged by want of sleep for me to recognize it at the time."
Horatio looked at him expectantly.
The doctor continued, "I tried to fortify him with beef tea. Not only could he not keep it down, he brought up everything he had eaten the previous day."
"My father swears by beef tea," Horatio said, wishing the old man had been here to see to Archie instead of this stranger. Not that Dr. Hornblower would have done anything differently.
Duclos looked at him as if to say, "There. You see?" Instead he stirred his coffee-he still hadn't taken a sip-and laid the spoon on the table. "Mr. Kennedy spoke to me on a certain subject. I hesitate to mention it, but he was most insistent."
Horatio guessed at his meaning. "His burial. Yes, he spoke to me also."
"Will you be able to accommodate his wishes?"
"Of course." What a strange question. "I am not entirely clear on the precise location of this cave he mentioned. I hope someone hereabouts will be able to direct me."
"Let me help you. I know the place he referred to. It is a cave formerly frequented by smugglers."
"I believe most coastal caves in these parts are."
"Yes, they would be. And as such they are guaranteed to be dry, yes? To protect their cargo until it can be dispersed. All in all, a sentimental but practical choice."
Sentimental and practical. Yes, that summed up Archie in many ways. On the other hand-
"I still cannot imagine where he came up with the idea. He has never indicated to me that he had any familiarity with the coast. Or with smuggling, for that matter. And Mr. Kennedy has family-well-to-do family-who may voice strong objections over such a resting place."
"Then let them move the body at a later date," the doctor said, somewhat callously in Horatio's opinion. "The important thing is to inter the body before it begins to decompose."
Horatio groaned. The image of a decomposing body wearing Archie Kennedy's face overwhelmed him suddenly and started another unwanted stream down his cheeks.
"There, there, Mr. Hornblower. I did not mean to upset you. I know this is hard for you to bear."
Embarrassed, Horatio wiped his face with his sleeve. "I could accept it if he were to fall in battle. It would not be easy but I would understand. We all face that risk when we go to sea in time of war. But this-it is so senseless."
"As senseless as a duel, yes."
"What-what did you say?"
"As senseless as a duel. Have I said something to offend you? If so, I am sorry."
"No. No offense taken, I assure you. It is only that Mr. Kennedy is not the sort of man who would fight a senseless duel." No. That dubious honor belonged to Horatio alone.
He finished his coffee and rose from his place. "I thank you again on Mr. Kennedy's behalf, Dr. Duclos. I will look in on him again later today, but for now I must return to my ship. If you will excuse me."
"Have no fear, Mr. Hornblower. I will watch over your Mr. Kennedy for as long as he needs me."
How easily these young men were led, Duclos reflected as he returned to Kennedy's side. Was it their idealism that made them so? All honor and bravery, expecting the same stellar qualities from others, they did not know when to suspect baser motives in those with whom they dealt. Take Mr. Hornblower-so painfully naïve. How hungrily he had grasped the theory that his friend had taken poison. Let him think his friend a suicide. That way, if he should come to question why Mr. Kennedy elected to be buried in unconsecrated ground, he would see it as proof of his friend's intent to kill himself. Really, these young men played so eagerly into his hands, there was almost no sport in it.
Leaning over his victim, Duclos studied him closely. Yes, the changes were progressing nicely. He should be able to finish the job well before Hornblower returned. Duclos allowed himself a chuckle.
"What do you think, Mr. Kennedy? Would you like a brother? I had it in mind to add Mr. Hornblower to my family. But only if it pleases you. Would it please you, my pet? You would remain my first-born, of course, and would have pride of place. Hornblower could never supplant you in my affections. Just think, Mr. Kennedy, you would never again walk in his shadow; he, on the other hand, would walk forever in yours."
Though Kennedy was too weak to react physically, Duclos read the turmoil in his mind. No, the young man most definitely did not wish the same fate upon his friend, no matter how insidiously the tendrils of jealousy sometimes wrapped themselves around his heart.
What a pity. They would make a fine pair, the one wearing his sorrows like a hairshirt, the other wracked with guilt over his inability to save his friend. It was probably for the best. Mr. Kennedy was biddable where Mr. Hornblower seemed to be made of sterner stuff. Hornblower not only asked questions but would probably, when he had time to think about it, question the answers he had received. He would be that much harder to control. Both were arresting physical specimens, if for different reasons. Hornblower with his height and bold features had a commanding presence that Kennedy's smaller stature denied him; yet Kennedy, with his fair coloring, refined features and air of innocence, beguiled and disarmed one in a way that the more saturnine Hornblower could not match. All in all, Duclos did not regret the winds of chance that had placed the handsome, tormented Kennedy in his path before the stalwart Hornblower. If the Almighty himself could cast this golden angel out of Paradise, who was Alcide Duclos to refuse him succor?
Horatio made one stop on his way back to the Indefatigable. Thus reassured that Mr. Kennedy's new uniforms would be ready for him to pick up later that afternoon, he went aboard and reported to Captain Pellew.
The captain received the news of Kennedy's worsening condition with an expression composed in equal parts of anger and distress. He paced the length of his cabin as he spoke.
"I cannot escape the feeling that I might have prevented this, Mr. Hornblower. If I had not recommended him for transfer-" He paused and looked at his subordinate as if challenging Horatio to deny it.
At any other time Horatio would have made appropriate noises refuting Pellew's statement. This time, being in complete agreement, he saw no recourse but to hold his tongue. He would not lie merely to make his captain feel better.
"I see you agree with me," Pellew broke into the silence. "You hold me responsible for Mr. Kennedy's death."
"Sir, yours is not the sole responsibility. I, myself-"
"You, Mr. Hornblower! How dare you claim the greater responsibility! Because you are his friend, and should have seen it coming? Is that a fair summary of your assumption, hmm?"
"Sir, with all due respect, I am his friend and I should have seen it coming. I should have prevented it."
"You presume much, Mr. Hornblower. I very much doubt that your friendship alone could have saved him once he was determined to die."
Horatio caught himself on the verge of bringing up El Ferrol. What did it serve to resurrect the ghosts of that difficult time? The fact remained that Horatio had saved Archie when he was determined to die, and he damn well should have been able to do it again. And Pellew knew it.
"Sir," he said more gently. "Mr. Kennedy has a final request. If I may?"
"Yes, yes, Mr. Hornblower. Lord," he murmured, "how I tire of losing good men through no other reason than their own misguided vanity."
Horatio swallowed his anger. Vanity! Archie Kennedy did not know the meaning of the word. How little the captain knew him. He took a deep breath and said, "Captain, sir, Mr. Kennedy requests that you read the burial service. He would deem it-an honor, sir."
Pellew regarded him in stricken silence for a few moments, then said, "I, too, would deem it an honor, Mr. Hornblower. But tell me, how is it that he does not request the offices of a clergyman? Kennedy is a man of faith, is he not? He has never struck me as someone who placed all his trust in reason and mathematical certainties."
Horatio felt the blood rise to his face but let the criticism wash over him. Now was not the time to debate the failure of organized religion to inform and animate his own life. "Mr. Kennedy is a believer, sir. I do not know why he did not choose a clergyman. Perhaps he has been so long at sea that he is not personally acquainted with any, whereas you are someone he knows and esteems."
"Yes, so it would appear." Pellew turned to look out the window, his back to Horatio. It was always hard to read the captain; he so often masked his true feelings with gruffness. After all this time serving under him, Horatio still hesitated at times, unsure if the captain were being facetious or in deadly earnest. The present statement might be sarcasm or it might be an expression of humility. Horatio hoped it was the latter.
"I wonder if he realizes that I cannot immediately put out to sea?" Pellew mused. "Given his condition, he may have forgotten that we are still in dock for refitting and likely to remain so for some days yet."
"Sir, he does not wish to be buried at sea. He expressly requested that he be laid to rest in a cave a few miles up the coast."
The captain turned back to him, frank astonishment on his face. "How extraordinary! Have you any notion why?"
"None, sir. It is, if I may say so, completely out of character."
"He was lucid, I take it? Not raving or-"
"He knew what he was saying, sir. I'd stake my life on it."
"And his family are in agreement?"
"I doubt his family know anything about it. Sir, I do not think anyone knows of Mr. Kennedy's illness apart from ourselves, and we are aware only because Mr. Bracegirdle and I happened upon him in the tavern."
"His family must be told. Even though officially Mr. Kennedy is no longer under my command, I fear that such news coming from the Admiralty must appear cold and impersonal. I shall write to them directly. Pray God they will believe me. I have had to tell them once before that their son was lost and presumed dead. As for Captain Wright," Pellew grimaced, "I shall let the Admiralty inform him. I do not fancy the task, myself."
Horatio had related Archie's experiences aboard Fortitude in his previous evening's report. Captain Pellew had been livid, swearing to him that had he known of Wright's choleric disposition he would never have offered up Lieutenant Kennedy for sacrifice. And now it was too late to make amends.
"I should almost like to tell him," Horatio heard himself say, "if only to see the look on his face."
"Would you, Mr. Hornblower!"
"Sir, he had no call to treat Mr. Kennedy the way he did. He bears as much responsibility for what has befallen Mr. Kennedy as anyone. Perhaps more, for his was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back."
"Have a care, Mr. Hornblower. Should I entrust you with such a mission, I should not wish to see you clapped in irons for insubordination to a senior officer."
"I would be extremely careful, sir." And he would, too, despite a fervent desire to tear out the blackguard's heart and shove it down his miserable throat.
Pellew appeared to mull this over. "No, Mr. Hornblower. While I applaud the spirit in which the offer was made, it is not for us to confront Captain Wright. He would see our interference as just that-interference in a matter which no longer concerns us. And, too, we have Mr. Kennedy to consider. I would never forgive myself if Wright descended upon that unfortunate young man on his deathbed and caused him any distress. I think it will be better if we let the Admiralty notify the captain of Mr. Kennedy's passing. After the fact-well after the fact."
Disappointed, Horatio only just managed to agree.
"It is time, Mr. Kennedy."
Archie felt the unwelcome pull on his consciousness. He fought it with all the strength he still possessed. It was dark and comforting in the place he inhabited, a half-sleep where dimly heard noises did not intrude but rather lulled him, like the song of the wind in a ship's sails. He recognized the velvet voice that spoke his name. He knew that whatever his personal feelings in the matter, that voice represented an authority to which he must submit. Grudgingly he opened his eyes.
The man who called himself Alcide Duclos hovered over him, so close that Archie should have felt the man's breath. But Duclos did not breathe, because he was not human but something other, a creature of myth and superstition. Unnatural. Archie did not understand how he knew this or why he accepted it as true. Whatever the reason, the fact remained that he no longer cared.
"That's right, Mr. Kennedy," the voice crooned. "I know you are weary, but it is almost over now. Soon you will go to sleep for the last time in your mortal shell. When you wake you will be transformed. You will look the same to your own and others' eyes, but you will have a body which no longer feels human needs nor suffers human ills. In short, Mr. Kennedy, you will be all but invincible, like an angel come down upon the earth. Shall we proceed?"
Archie's eyelids fluttered closed, but not before he caught a glint of gold on the man's right thumb. He thought no more about it until he felt a burning sensation on his neck, the hot trickle of fresh blood, then lips, teeth and tongue upon his skin. His attempt at struggle proved fruitless. His limbs, like lead weights, would not move to his bidding. Only his mind seemed alive, but even that was no match for the alien, invasive intelligence that enveloped it, a cognizance so ancient that it seemed to hold the secrets of the known universe and more. In awe, Archie ceased resisting and lay still. As on the two previous occasions when Duclos breached his defenses, Archie perceived a kaleidoscope of mental images-a swirl of memories, some recent, some half-forgotten, the good along with the bad-in sum, the milestones of his life passed before his inner eye, each with its own power to gladden or sadden him. Little conscious thought penetrated these visions, as if Duclos had summoned them to distract Archie lest he think about what was happening to him. Even that realization departed as quickly as it had occurred, to be replaced by a moving gallery of people once dear to him but long absent from his life. The surge of joy and hope Archie felt at the sight of them vanished in an instant as they disappeared, leaving him once more alone and bereft.
Suddenly his body was wracked by a white-hot seizure. A hand like a band of steel seemed to encircle his heart, squeezing tighter and tighter until it had squeezed it dry. The pain so consumed him that he cried out. His rigid limbs spasmed violently once and then stilled.
"It is over," the silken voice caressed him. "Your heart has stopped. You have ceased to breathe. You wonder why you can still hear me. That is because your soul has not left your body. Nor will it. I am going to give you something to drink, Mr. Kennedy. You must take it, for it will sustain you through the following days until your body has adjusted to its altered state. You may be aware of things happening all around you but they will not disturb you. You will sleep until you wake at my bidding. Now, Mr. Kennedy, drink."
Archie drank. What the liquid was he knew not, but it soothed his parched lips and burning throat like sweet mead and so he drank it greedily. He drank until the source of it was withdrawn suddenly, leaving him gasping like a landed fish. Then darkness covered him and he fell into a deep slumber.
As a rule Horatio did not like to haggle over prices but he made an exception this time. He saw no reason to pay full cost for a pair of uniforms that would never see service, especially as one of them was destined for the grave. The tailor saw it otherwise. Whether the uniforms saw active duty or lay in a chest (or casket) until they moldered, the workmanship that had gone into them was first quality and deserved remuneration. He would take nothing less than full price. Feeling precious time slip between his fingers, Horatio reluctantly agreed to the sum demanded, bundled the folded uniforms under his arm and hastened to the Topgallant.
Once there, his long legs took the stairs two at a time. He burst through Archie's door without knocking, then stopped, momentarily disoriented. Archie's bed was empty. Not only empty but stripped of its bedding. Where had they put him? Then his eye traveled to a trestle table in the corner of the room just beyond the window. No, not a table. The trestles supported a plain wooden box. Dread suffusing every step, Horatio approached it. He did not remember that he was cradling the parcel with Archie's uniforms until he dropped it.
The lid had not yet been laid across the top. Horatio took the final step toward the open box and looked inside. Dearest God, in whom he had not believed since childhood, it was true. The unthinkable had happened.
Horatio's trembling hands held onto the rim for support as he wept hot tears of sorrow and of shame. How long he stood there, keening, he neither knew nor cared. Suddenly there was a hand on his elbow. He turned and met the appraising gaze of Alcide Duclos.
"I am sorry, Mr. Hornblower."
"He-he didn't w-wait," Horatio blubbered. "He left-and I d-didn't get a chance to say g-good-bye."
"It was his time to go," Duclos said simply.
"I should have been here."
"There is nothing you could have done."
"I-I could have held his hand. I could have reassured him that he was loved and would be missed. He should not have had to die alone."
"Who says he died alone, Mr. Hornblower? I was with him at the end. He did not suffer any more than was absolutely necessary."
"Yes, Mr. Hornblower. Death is rarely pain-free. Unless it is instantaneous and unforeseen or the patient is unconscious at the time, there will be pain. Mr. Kennedy was conscious."
Horatio groaned. His knees threatened to buckle and he tightened his grip on the side of the casket to keep himself upright.
"I will not offer you the usual platitudes, such as do-not-worry-he-has-gone-to-a-better-place, or be-glad-for-his-pain-has-ended. You loved him, and must assuage your grief however you can. But you also did what you could for him in life, and in that you may take comfort, for that is what truly matters."
Pulling himself together Horatio said, "I have brought his new uniforms. He wanted to be buried in one of them."
Duclos bent to retrieve the parcel from the floor. He placed it on the bed and untied it. "There is more than one?"
"Yes, one for everyday and one for dress. I think he will look best in the dress uniform."
"Yes, I think so, too. Shall you dress him, or shall I? I have already washed the body. I took the liberty of going through his chest to see what garments he had and dressed him in a clean shirt and breeches."
"Let me do it. I mean no offense, Dr. Duclos; it is simply the last office I shall have the opportunity to perform for him."
Duclos bowed. "Of course, Mr. Hornblower. I understand perfectly."
"One thing, please, Doctor." Horatio was embarrassed to have to ask, but this was something he had never done before, doctor's son notwithstanding. "Will his limbs be stiff? Or has the time of stiffness passed?"
"The rigor will be just beginning. You will want to work quickly. If you need help, I shall be next door. You have only to rap on the wall."
Grateful as he was for the doctor's sensitivity, Horatio waited until the door had closed behind him before undressing Archie. If he had taken the trouble to analyze his feelings, he would have realized that the reason he had rejected the doctor's aid was jealousy, plain and simple. Duclos had been with Archie at the moment of his death. There could be no more intimate moment than that and he, Horatio, had been deprived of sharing it with his best friend. The doctor had washed him, dressed him and arranged his hair. He had left nothing for Horatio to do. This at least gave him a few minutes of intimacy, a few minutes alone in which to say good-bye.
There was nothing wrong with the breeches and shirt Duclos had put on him. They were clean and serviceable and would not look out of place with the new uniform coat. Nevertheless, Horatio proceeded to exchange the old for the new. He was not sure he believed in an afterlife. He almost wanted to believe, for Archie's sake. If there were a physical place where the collective consciousness of the dead reposed, he wanted Archie's appearance, when he took his place there, to reflect the goodness of his nature and the purity of his heart. And that meant all of his new uniform, not just bits and pieces of it.
"My God, Archie," he whispered as he worked. "I never thought I would be doing this for you. After you survived El Ferrol, I supposed you could withstand anything and would outlast even me. You certainly would have outlived me, had you not brought me across the bridge at Muzillac. How could you slip away from me like this, while my back was turned? How will I go on without your encouragement or without your wonderful sense of the absurd to keep me from taking myself too seriously? How will I go on, Archie?"
Looking at Archie's still features, so finely chiseled that they might have come from the hand of a master sculptor, Horatio mourned his friend's boyish exuberance and playfulness, two qualities seldom in evidence in recent times. El Ferrol and Muzillac had aged him-had aged them both. After Muzillac Archie had lent him quiet support. Horatio had taken so much strength from him, often without even realizing that he did so. Had he taken so much that Archie had none left for himself when he needed it most? And had he given Archie nothing in return?
"I have been totally selfish, Archie. Now that you are gone I cannot even beg your forgiveness. And if you will not forgive me, how can I ever forgive myself? Captain Pellew would have me believe that I am not your keeper and bear no responsibility. How can I accept that and still look myself in the face in the morning? There are times in our lives when we cannot look after ourselves-you and I have both experienced such times-and must rely on the good offices of others to care for us. You have been there for me. I should have been there for you. I will never forget you, Archie Kennedy. I will always carry your memory in a special place in my heart."
He finished his ministrations and stepped back to examine the effect. "I wish you could see how you look, Mr. Kennedy. You would have made a very handsome lieutenant." There remained only a few details to complete his work. He retied Archie's queue, smoothed the shorter fringe that framed his face. Duclos had not tied the neckerchief properly. Horatio was starting to redo it when a mark on his friend's throat stopped him.
"What is this, Archie? How did you come to cut yourself here?" It looked to be an old injury, for it was almost healed. Had he lived another day or two no one would have noticed. It was such a small cut. Still, its placement was odd. Had Archie's hand slipped while shaving? Or had he meant to slit his throat and lost heart at the first bite of the blade? Horatio probed the wound gently. His father would have known, just by looking at it. But Horatio was not his father and never would be. He sighed and replaced the neckerchief.
"Shall you have your sword, Archie? Yes, I think so. Otherwise I shall have to keep it and I should cry every time I looked at it. Better if you keep it."
Finally, he could put off the moment no longer. He went out and knocked on Duclos's door.
"I must notify the proper authorities of Mr. Kennedy's death. I will return as soon as I am able."
Duclos nodded. "Then I think we may plan on burying him tomorrow."
"Will you be there?"
"Of course. Having failed to keep him alive, it is the least I can do."